Film Fest 919: Utilizing the September 11th terrorist attacks as a plot device is the cinematic equivalent of a nuclear weapon. Deploy it properly and the emotional impact can be huge, achieving your goals in one fell swoop. However, do so irresponsibly and the devastation can be something your movie can never recover from. Despite not knowing the meaning of the word subtle, “Windows on the World” manages to make its 9/11 use respectful enough to benefit the project, not hinder it. A New York and Mexico based immigrant drama playing down in Chapel Hill at Film Fest 919, it’s a small movie that eventually has a lot to say.
“Windows on the World” mixes a period story of 9/11 anguish with a still modern look at the hardships of being an undocumented worked in America. Director Michael D. Olmos (son of Edward James Olmos) has great empathy, and every bit of his film contains that. He and his writers lack subtlety (more on that later), but their heart is decidedly in the right place, and that counts for a lot.
Seeking a better life for his family, Balthazar (Olmos) has opted to leave Mexico and head to America. Ending up in New York, working at the Windows on the World restaurant in the Twin Towers, he sends money home, working hard for his wife and children. On September 11th, the family sees the World Trade Center destroyed, presuming their patriarch dead as well. Weeks pass with no word from him, furthering that belief. However, his wife Elena (Julie Carmen) swears she saw him running from the destruction in news footage, so son Fernando (Ryan Guzman) decides to sneak into the United States, hoping to find his father. A dangerous journey across the border ensues, but he makes it, not sure what comes next.
In New York, Fernando is at a loss for how to find confirmation of his father’s death. Homeless and with limited funds, he’s seen as just another illegal, not as a potentially grieving son. As he looks for answers, he catches the eye of a pretty girl in Lia (Chelsea Gilligan) and gets a job washing windows for Lou (Glynn Turman). Soon, he gets a lead that might answer his big question, but the reveal of what happened to Balthazar only causes more pain.
The cast are given fairly generic characters to play, but they bring out the heart in them. Ryan Guzman is charming and brings his journey ample amounts of heart, while Glynn Turman is a welcome burst of character and energy whenever he’s on screen. The few scenes with Edward James Olmos remind you why he’s such a great actor, but he’s not the focus. Guzman is our protagonist, and while he’s not on that level, he’s up to the task of carrying the movie.
Director Olmos, along with his writers Robert Mailer Anderson and Zack Anderson, want this movie to be as accessible as possible. Having the cast speak English takes away some realism, but once you get used to it, you realize it’s in order to make this palatable to the masses. Considering how mainstream this otherwise is, it’s understandable why it wasn’t shot in Spanish. They don’t have a subtle approach to emotions, racism, or the pain of the attack, so it fits in with their MO. Had they not been able to get a handle on the trickiness of 9/11 as a plot device, this would have been awful. Instead, it sneaks up on you and may even wring some tears by the end.
One thing worth mentioning is that this flick evocatively utilizes the missing flyers that plastered New York City after the attack. The most emotionally resonate choice in the film is how the camera lingers just long enough on the endless flyers that were so ubiquitous in the days, weeks, and months after the tragedy. Anyone who remembers them will have a visceral reaction. The filmmakers don’t overuse it, but they’re always on the periphery, reminding everyone of the pain everyone carried around the five boroughs in the aftermath. It’s a small detail, but a noteworthy one.
Film Fest 919 is hundreds of miles away from NYC, but “Windows on the World” is an affecting and effective portrait of what it was like, even if it’s telling an immigrant’s story. The plot is on the nose and the emotions are hammered home, but the power of the tale carries the day. When it is acquired for release, it has a decent chance of being a crossover success.